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Carter and Obama

Foreign policy experts are also picking up on similarities. Walter Russell Mead, then a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Economist magazine earlier this year that Mr. Obama is “avoiding the worst mistakes that plagued Carter.” But he warns that presidents like Mr. Obama who emphasize “human rights” can fall prey to the temptation of picking on weak countries while ignoring more dire human rights issues in powerful countries (Russia, China, Iran). Over time that can “hollow out an administration’s credibility and make a president look weak.” ~John Fund

This is more of Fund’s crack reporting. As Fund, Mead and everyone else paying attention knows, the Obama administration has hardly emphasized human rights in its conduct of foreign policy. One need only look out over the ocean of crocodile tears conservative pundits have been shedding for Iranian protesters, the Dalai Lama, and countless other neglected dissenters for proof of that. Neither has the administration been been the lickspittle of dictators that its detractors want to pretend that it is, but it is perfectly fair to say that the new administration has been reluctant to engage in a lot of empty rhetoric about human rights. This is partly because they seem to understand that empty rhetoric helps no one, and partly because they seem to understand that nothing is gained for either the U.S. or dissenters abroad if American interests are jeopardized at the same time that dissenters are set up to appear as agents of American influence. Obama has been conducting foreign policy in a significantly different fashion from that of Carter, and for the most part most would have to agree that Obama’s approach is preferable to that of Carter.

To refer to Obama as a President who emphasizes human rights is to say something that everyone knows isn’t true for the sake of a very lame Carter comparison. If I were Mead, I would claim that I had been horribly misquoted, because the alternative is that Mead has just proven that he is intent on forcing an identification between Carter and Obama regardless of the facts. Since he wrote a lengthy article in Foreign Policy making the argument that Obama could be the new Carter, that isn’t exactly surprising, but in the past he maintained that he didn’t mean it in a derogatory way. Here he clearly does.

Fund continues with his “reporting”:

Pat Caddell, who was Mr. Carter’s pollster while he was in the White House, thinks some comparisons between the two men are overblown. But he notes that any White House that is sinking in the polls takes on a “bunker mentality” that leads the president to become isolated and consult with fewer and fewer people from the outside. Mr. Caddell told me that his Democratic friends think that’s happening to Mr. Obama—and that the president’s ability to pull himself out of a political tailspin is hampered by his resistance to seek out fresh thinking.

There is one small problem with all of this. Obama isn’t significantly sinking in the polls. His average approval rating is still 45%. He isn’t in a political tailspin, so how is it that there are so many people confident that he is having difficulty pulling out of it?

Fund then engages in a bit of sleight-of-hand right at the end of the article:

Democrats need no reminding that Mr. Carter wound up costing them dearly in 1978 and 1980 [bold mine-DL] as Republicans made major gains in Congress.

Obviously, the election in which Carter cost Democrats dearly was 1980. This is the reason why he remains a symbol of Democratic failure to this day, and the 1980 result was overwhelmingly an effect of the hostage crisis in Iran and the recession resulting from the effort to stop the loose monetary policy that the Fed had been pursuing so disastrously for most of Carter’s term. 1978 represented a below-average loss of Democratic seats in a Congress overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats. If the midterms this year were as good for Democrats as 1978 was, we all know we would not be talking about comparisons between Obama and Carter. The only purpose of such comparisons is to predict political disaster for the administration, and no one would be talking about disaster for Obama if there were only going to be 15 seats lost in the House. If 2010 turned out to be another 1978, as I once thought it might, that would mean that Obama was on his way to a relatively good midterm result. Fund knows that, or he should, but it would get in the way of his deeply flawed argument for tying Carter and Obama together.

What is most ridiculous about these comparisons is that Carter’s administration suffered on the domestic front because he and the liberals in Congress were perpetually at odds. Carter had run as a relatively moderate Democrat in 1976, and he dissatisfied many liberals in the campaign and then during his administration. Obama has governed from the center-left, but he has worked with liberal leaders in Congress more harmoniously than Carter ever did, and he signed off on more ambitious social legislation than Carter ever dreamed of supporting. Carter and Obama have both ended up frustrating liberals in their party, but for entirely different reasons: Carter was often at odds with liberals in his party, whereas Obama mostly had their full support from early on, allowed them to push through legislation they wanted in the House, and appeared to settle for too little of what they wanted.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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